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This is a piece I wrote almost three years ago that never got published. I found it again and decided to post it here for fun. Here's to education!
It is a common belief that, because of the health risks associated with tap water, bottled water is safer for consumption than tap water is. From an environmental perspective, it would definitely be in our best interest to avoid bottled water whenever we can.
According to Natural Society, approximately 1.39 litres of water is bottled, while approximately three litres of water is used to make the plastic for the bottle on average. Meanwhile, says James Postman, who wrote for the Natural Resources Defense Council in January 2016, millions of tons of used plastic bottles obstruct our landfills. Some people spend around $10,000 more per gallon on water bottles than they do on their utility expenses (specifically, water).
Despite these startling statistics, Postman says that clever branding tactics that emphasize the pure, crystal-clear image of packaged water have resulted in skyrocketing sales over the past few decades. With that in mind, is the investment really worth it—both to the environment and our wellbeing?
First, let’s take a look at how exactly water is regulated. In Canada, the responsibility for overseeing safe drinking water supplies and treatment facilities is shared between all levels of government.
Health Canada’s Water Quality and Health Bureau is chiefly involved in the science and research sector of regulation by producing the Guidelines For Canadian Drinking Water Quality in association with all the provinces and territories, which is the standard for determining the requirements and assessing the quality of drinking water services (Health Canada, Environmental and Workplace Health).
Many detrimental substances that may come into contact with drinking water, like the phosphate used in laundry detergents, are regulated by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (Environment and Climate Change Canada).
As a World Health Organization, Health Canada contributes to the development of WHO guidelines for drinking water; it also works closely with other government agencies outside the country such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (Health Canada, Environmental and Workplace Health).
Bottled water itself, since it's catalogued as a food item, is regularly subjected to assessment under the Food and Drugs Act Regulations, and is federally regulated by both Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (Health Canada, Food and Nutrition).
Health Canada is responsible for health and nutrition-related labelling policies as well as health and safety standards, while the CFIA conducts investigations, enforces rules and regulations, and sets the standards for product advertising, packaging, and labeling. Afterwards, provinces and territories have the freedom to establish additional requirements for their own jurisdictions (Health Canada, Food and Nutrition).
Nevertheless, even with all of these guidelines and regulations put in place, none of the Canadian capital cities—with the exception of Ottawa—test for all of the contaminants outlined in Health Canada’s guidelines. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) revealed in 2015 that many cities are selective about which substances they test for, because they doubt the presence of some of the contaminants in their regions.
Toronto, for example, doesn’t test for protozoa and enteric viruses, because Ontario claims that disinfection treatment processes eliminate them already, thus seemingly negating the purpose of testing (CBC News). University of Winnipeg professor Eva Pip refutes this practice, saying, “We should be looking for these chemicals to ensure that we are not being unreasonably exposed to them.” (CBC News)
How do we know, then, which type of water is actually safer to consume than the other? The reality is, says Postman, it ultimately depends on how effective the standards and regulations are for both in each region, and how well reports hold up accordingly.
In other words, there is no way to generalize the superiority of one over the other. He gives the example that sometimes, bottled water could very well come straight from the tap, and it may or may not get further treatment.
He explains that although bottled water does experience traces of contaminants from time to time, long-term consumption of contaminated water may lead to serious and potentially cancer-related health issues for people with weaker immune systems, and while tap water is mostly free of contamination, rural communities are especially at a greater risk due to pesticides used in crops that make their way to bodies of water, unregulated wells, and the inferior quality of water supply and distribution systems in older homes.
It is required by law that tap suppliers provide annual water quality reports to citizens, and the reports do specify potential health risks of the drinking water in a particular area, while water filtration systems are available for homes to ensure that any contaminants are eradicated.
However, Postman recommends that those who are greatly concerned about water quality on a day-to-day basis should consider purchasing consumer test packages so that they can test their tap water themselves, and purchasing filters that specifically eliminate the more concerning contaminants.
As for water bottles, he says the best thing to do is to check caps and labels to determine if it is bottled in a municipal source or any sort of community water system, which will signify that the water is indeed from tap. If no information is available, calling and asking the bottler about the source is the alternative, as not all bottled-water programs will list their sources.
Consumers should keep in mind, however that it may not necessarily be the case that the water itself is contaminated. Studies have found that water that sits in plastic bottles for weeks on end contain phthalates, suggesting that the contaminants may derive from plastic caps. Chemicals like this can leach into bottles over time, and so this is something to think about and look into the next time shoppers stop by the beverage aisle for water packages.
With files from Natural Society, CBC News, Health Canada: Environmental and Workplace Health and Food and Nutrition, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and James Postman for Natural Resources Defense Council